Avatar: the next generation of moneymaking

[This is a modified version of my review for Avatar, to be published next week in the Carl, Carleton’s biweekly arts & lit rag. Ashley wants it to be known that she hates James Cameron, and doesn’t want to hear about the movie anymore; also, she is temporarily without Internet. Finally, full disclosure: due to scheduling concerns, I was only able to see Avatar in 2D.]

Since it hit theaters in December, James Cameron’s Avatar has swept the nation, becoming the second (and counting) highest-grossing film in history, and inspiring lots and lots of tiresome, repetitive discussion. And in keeping with ‘s policy of weighing in on things, I’m here to add to that discussion.

In case, somehow, the behemoth that is Avatar‘s marketing budget hasn’t yet made a telepathic bond (or “Tsahaylu”) with you, the film’s plot is fairly easy to describe: in 2154, technologically advanced humans have colonized a planet called Pandora, which abounds with glowing natural wonders, and decided to plunder it in order to obtain its Unobtainium. However, a race of 10-foot-tall indigenous feline humanoids called the Na’vi already live there, right on top of one of the richest Unobtainium reserves on all of Pandora.

Don’t worry, though: I haven’t spoiled anything, because all of this is spelled out in clunky expositional dialogue and voiceover within the first 10 or so minutes. The only added twist is that several of the humans, including the disabled hero, Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), are able to mingle with the natives by entering specially grown Na’vi bodies – avatars, if you will. Through his avatar, Jake is able to nimbly explore the diverse wildlife of Pandora, including rainforests full of lovingly rendered flora, and several large species of pachyderm that breathe through their front legs – I mean, why not, they’re aliens.

The story that follows, from Jake’s first encounter with Na’vi princess Neytiri, to his induction into their tribe, to the climactic war between the Na’vi and humans, is nothing if not predictable; if you’re able to follow the first act, you can probably guess with considerable accuracy how the villain, Colonel Quaritch, will die. Because, as so many reviews have already pointed out, the story is not the point.

The obligatory good vs. evil, technology vs. nature conflict simply serves as a framework for the real meat of the film: holy shit is that a detailed planet. Over a decade in the making, Avatar (by which I mean, Avatar‘s visuals) is being vaunted as the next generation of filmmaking, the next step in the history of film, and a lot of messianic-sounding phrases with the words “next” and “filmmaking” in them. Maybe it’s the cinematic Luddite in me talking, but I just don’t buy the hype.

The most pertinent point might be that I’ve seen better. Yes, Cameron’s engaging vision of Pandora is fun to explore, especially when the camera sits still long enough for us to check out the planet’s foliage and curious astronomical features. It’s admittedly a breakthrough of a sort, yet it’s hardly the most enrapturing world that’s ever been created on film. For example, British director Michael Powell helped construct exotic worlds of light and color in films like The Thief of Baghdad or The Tales of Hoffmann. Another apt example is Hayao Miyazaki, who’s more than matched Cameron’s artistry in Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away, while simultaneously developing similar themes more eloquently, and without resorting to obvious Manichaean struggles.

My other basis for dismissing Avatar as any kind of landmark film is the fact it relies so heavily on the shimmering beauty of its fictional world that virtually every other element suffers. Most of the dialogue is, frankly, inane; when characters aren’t speaking in Na’vi, they’re spouting action movie clichés like “Let’s dance!” or referring to a hammerheaded creature as a “punk-ass bitch.” As others have pointed out, this wouldn’t be such a problem if we were only dealing with a big, goofy action movie – like, say, Cameron’s earlier Aliens – but here we’re dealing with a big, goofy action movie that begs us to take its superficial allegory seriously while refusing to allow an ounce of genuine humor or self-deprecation into the material, lest that dilute its vital message or epic grandeur.

It’s also frustrating that such an expansive, spiritually interconnected world can’t be populated by anyone but easily identifiable stock characters. Jake is such a dull, hollow protagonist that it’s hard to see what everyone, from Neytiri to the rest of the Na’vi and even their earth goddess Eywa, sees in him. Upon their first encounter, Neytiri notes that he has a “strong heart”; the reasoning behind his tremendous success as a member, and later the leader (!), of the Na’vi is never again questioned. The Na’vi themselves, despite being the ostensible focal point of the film, are consistently ignored in favor of Jake, and outside of a few ritual chants (usually meant to help Jake) and plenty of sashaying before the camera in order to show off their shiny blue bodies, they don’t do or say a whole lot as individuals, at least nothing that Jake doesn’t tell them to first.

The humans, meanwhile, are mostly reduced to a set of militaristic stereotypes, with Colonel Quaritch as their pointedly evil, irrationally angry leader. (In fact, he’s so evil he can violate the film’s own ground rules and survive in Pandora’s atmosphere, simply for the purpose of being really, really evil.) The film’s only real saving grace so far as the performances are concerned is Sigourney Weaver as avatar supervisor Dr. Augustine, being her usual hard-headed, affable self; however, her character’s extensive experience with the Na’vi is immediately bypassed by the film in favor of Jake’s strong heart.

So in the end, my opinion on Avatar lines up with the sentiment I’ve noticed in most ambivalent reviews: it’s pretty to look at, but there’s not much going on underneath. It is a high-octane thrill ride, along with whatever else they’re calling it, and if that’s what you’re looking for, by all means go see it quick, before you’re subjected to the indignity of watching it on a TV or computer screen. But please don’t tell me it’s the next anything of cinema, unless that “anything” is “extremely profitable investment.” I have high hopes for the future of filmmaking technology. I just hope the next great pioneer has a more interesting story to tell than Avatar.

In case, somehow, the behemoth that is Avatar’s marketing budget hasn’t yet made a telepathic bond (or “Tsahaylu”) with you, the film’s plot is fairly easy to describe: in 2154, technologically advanced humans have colonized a planet called Pandora, which abounds with glowing natural wonders, and decided to plunder it in order to obtain its Unobtainium. However, a race of 10-foot-tall indigenous feline humanoids called the Na’vi already live there, right on top of one of the richest Unobtainium reserves on all of Pandora.

Don’t worry, though: I haven’t spoiled anything, because all of this is spelled out in clunky expositional dialogue and voiceover within the first 10 or so minutes. The only added twist is that several of the humans, including the disabled hero, Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), are able to mingle with the natives by entering specially grown Na’vi bodies – avatars, if you will. Through his avatar, Jake is able to nimbly explore the diverse wildlife of Pandora, including rainforests full of lovingly rendered flora, and several large species of pachyderm that breathe through their front legs – I mean, why not, they’re aliens.

The story that follows, from Jake’s first encounter with Na’vi princess Neytiri, to his induction into their tribe, to the climactic war between the Na’vi and humans, is nothing if not predictable; if you’re able to follow the first act, you can probably guess with considerable accuracy how the villain, Colonel Quaritch, will die. Because, as so many reviews have already pointed out, the story is not the point.

The obligatory good vs. evil, technology vs. nature conflict simply serves as a framework for the real meat of the film: holy shit is that a detailed planet. Over a decade in the making, Avatar (by which I mean, Avatar’s visuals) is being vaunted as the next generation of filmmaking, the next step in the history of film, and a lot of messianic-sounding phrases with the words “next” and “filmmaking” in them. Maybe it’s the cinematic Luddite in me talking, but I just don’t buy the hype.

The most pertinent point might be that I’ve seen better. Yes, Cameron’s engaging vision of Pandora is fun to explore, especially when the camera sits still long enough for us to check out the planet’s foliage and curious astronomical features. It’s admittedly a breakthrough of a sort, yet it’s hardly the most enrapturing world that’s ever been created on film. As I discuss in the column above, Michael Powell helped construct exotic, self-contained worlds of light and color in films like The Thief of Baghdad or The Tales of Hoffmann. Another apt example is Hayao Miyazaki, who’s more than matched Cameron’s artistry in Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away, while simultaneously developing similar themes more eloquently, and without resorting to obvious Manichaean struggles.

My other basis for dismissing Avatar as any kind of landmark film is the fact it relies so heavily on the shimmering beauty of its fictional world that virtually every other element suffers. Most of the dialogue is, frankly, inane; when characters aren’t speaking in Na’vi, they’re spouting action movie clichés like “Let’s dance!” or referring to a hammerheaded creature as a “punk-ass bitch.” As others have pointed out, this wouldn’t be such a problem if we were only dealing with a big, goofy action movie – like, say, Cameron’s earlier Aliens – but here we’re dealing with a big, goofy action movie that begs us to take its superficial allegory seriously while refusing to allow an ounce of genuine humor or self-deprecation into the material, lest that dilute its vital message or epic grandeur.

It’s also frustrating that such an expansive, spiritually interconnected world can’t be populated by anyone but easily identifiable stock characters. Jake is such a dull, hollow protagonist that it’s hard to see what everyone, from Neytiri to the rest of the Na’vi and even their earth goddess Eywa, sees in him. Upon their first encounter, Neytiri notes that he has a “strong heart”; the reasoning behind his tremendous success as a member, and later the leader (!), of the Na’vi is never again questioned. The Na’vi themselves, despite being the ostensible focal point of the film, are consistently ignored in favor of Jake, and outside of a few ritual chants (usually meant to help Jake) and plenty of sashaying before the camera in order to show off their shiny blue bodies, they don’t do or say a whole lot as individuals, at least nothing that Jake doesn’t tell them to first.

The humans, meanwhile, are mostly reduced to a set of militaristic stereotypes, with Colonel Quaritch as their pointedly evil, irrationally angry leader. (In fact, he’s so evil he can violate the film’s own ground rules and survive in Pandora’s atmosphere, simply for the purpose of being really, really evil.) The film’s only real saving grace so far as the performances are concerned is Sigourney Weaver as avatar supervisor Dr. Augustine, being her usual hard-headed, affable self; however, her character’s extensive experience with the Na’vi is immediately bypassed by the film in favor of Jake’s strong heart.

So in the end, my opinion on Avatar lines up with the sentiment I’ve noticed in most ambivalent reviews: it’s pretty to look at, but there’s not much going on underneath. It is a high-octane thrill ride, along with whatever else they’re calling it, and if that’s what you’re looking for, by all means go see it quick, before you’re subjected to the indignity of watching it on a TV or computer screen. But please don’t tell me it’s the next anything of cinema, unless that “anything” is “extremely profitable investment.” I have high hopes for the future of filmmaking technology. I just hope the next great pioneer has a more interesting story to tell than Avatar.

5 Comments

Filed under Cinema

5 responses to “Avatar: the next generation of moneymaking

  1. Tony A

    I think your review is right on. I viewed the movie in IMAX and really enjoyed the IMAX experience but the story line of boy meets girl and saves the world is redundant at best. Can’t one time an owl meet an aardvark and they invent a universal cell pohone charger? Has that been done yet??

  2. Great review, and spot on! I was similarly entranced by the world, but also irritated with the inane dialogue and flatness of Jake.

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